Cougars and lions

It’s walk­ing into the jaws of death,” I whispered. Two zebras had broken away from the herd and were mov­ing through the tall grass to­ward three lions snooz­ing in the sun. One zebra lowered its head to graze. The oth­er set a course straight for the lions.

Suddenly the doz­ing fe­lines were alert. Heads raised, they watched lunch on the hoof come closer. One li­on­ess crouched with the tip of its tail twitch­ing. We could see the muscles bunch­ing and re­leas­ing be­neath her tawny coat as she stared in­tently at the zebra. Then,  ever so slowly, she began to slink through the grass.

Walking toward the jaws of death.
Walking to­ward the jaws of death.

I was with a group of friends and fam­ily on sa­fari in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. These weren’t the first lions and zebras we’d seen. But it was the first stalk and po­ten­tial kill we’d wit­nessed. The si­lence in the jeep was palpable.

Then the li­on­ess broke cov­er, ra­cing to­ward the zebra. It turned to run but with­in a few strides the lion leapt and sunk its claws onto the black and white striped haunch. There was a col­lect­ive “Oh!” from our vehicle. The zebra bucked and kicked with its rear legs caus­ing the lion to lose its grip. It chased the flee­ing an­im­al for few metres, then gave up.

In the dis­tance we saw the zebra limp­ing and wondered if the deep, bloody gashes would be­come in­fec­ted or at­tract oth­er predators.

Cougars, like all cats, focus intently on their prey.
Cougars, like all cats, fo­cus in­tently on their prey.

Although a sim­il­ar col­our, African lions are much big­ger than cou­gars and live in large prides un­like the more sol­it­ary cou­gar. (We saw as many as 35 lions loun­ging to­geth­er!) But the two spe­cies of big cats are equally op­por­tun­ist­ic when it comes to prey. And the lion’s total fo­cus and man­ner of ap­proach­ing her prey was ex­actly how a cou­gar would re­spond to an un­aware deer com­ing its way.

But the story wasn’t over yet. As the li­on­ess sauntered back to her com­pan­ions our guide said, “She’s com­ing back for a hug.” When the lion reached one of the oth­ers, she placed her head on its shoulder and the su­pine lion reached up to wrap her fore­leg and paw around the other’s neck.

Mountain lions of­ten hunt alone but on oc­ca­sion a fe­male with cubs or two young adults will tackle prey to­geth­er. I won­der if cou­gars also provide con­sol­ing hugs if their pro­spect­ive meal escapes?